For a while now, the prospects for a "Grand Bargain" of budget cuts and entitlement and tax reforms to slow the long-term growth of the $17.9 trillion national debt seemed next to zero.
The last serious effort by President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to construct such a deal blew up in acrimony and finger pointing in 2011. Republicans balked at supporting any sort of tax increases and many Democrats opposed cuts in programs for the poor and elderly.
More recently, as the economy continued to improve and the annual budget deficit dropped to $483 billion, lawmakers and the White House lost any sense of urgency to address the challenge of a major boost in the debt down the road as Social Security and Medicare costs skyrocket to meet the needs of an aging population.
As the mid-term election campaign draws to a close, however, it’s now safe to say that prospects for a "Grand Bargain" have gone from next to zero to zero.
That's because the small handful of Democrats who embraced the deficit-reduction plan by former Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles are being hammered by the Republicans for trimming Social Security benefits. It is a remarkable campaign turnabout by the GOP, which has long endorsed entitlement reform to hold down the long-term debt. Now, they are criticizing the few Democratic lawmakers who actually agreed with them.
Bowles and Simpson co-chaired the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform that released recommendations in December 2010 -- a controversial document that almost overnight became the gold standard for deficit hawks and government reformers seeking to put government spending on a more sustainable glide path. But nothing is riskier in politics than tampering with entitlement programs -- long known as the "Third Rail of Politics” for the risks in tampering with them. And while Bowles-Simpson became a touchstone for many conservatives and government watchdog groups, few politicians were willing to actually touch it.
Among Bowles-Simpson’s voluminous recommendations:
- Reduce Social Security benefits for wealthier Americans
- Raise the retirement age to 69 by 2075
- Raise taxes by overhauling the federal tax code
- Adopt a new, cost-of-living measure know as chained Consumer Price Index, or CPI.
Although there was substantial support among the commission members for the report, there was not enough to meet a 14-vote super majority threshold that was required to send the recommendations on to Congress for approval.
The plan got a lot of attention in the media and generated intense controversy between liberals and conservatives, but it never went anywhere in Congress. Still, there were several symbolic votes held that forced lawmakers to show their hands on these thorny public policy issues. One was an amendment last year to a House measure calling on Obama to submit a balanced budget. That amendment -- endorsing the Bowles-Simpson approach -- received only 75 votes, according to Politico, while 348 Republican and Democratic lawmakers voted against it. Prior to that, 38 Democrats and Republican backed a budget plan modeled after the Bowles-Simpson plan.
Those votes are now proving costly to some lawmakers -- especially Democrats. They are learning first hand that principled votes on tough budget issues can easily endanger their careers. It is a lesson that will be fresh in the minds of politicians the next time someone calls for a new grand bargain.
Politico and The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Republicans -- now within striking distance of regaining control of the Senate -- are suddenly "blasting" the idea of reducing Social Security benefits and blaming Democrats for supporting the effort.
Crossroads GPS, the conservative nonprofit political organization founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, has aired ads against Democratic senators Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) for supporting a plan that would hurt seniors. The Crossroad ad accuses the Democrats of supporting a "controversial plan" that "raises the retirement age," the news organizations reported.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, the National Republican Campaign Committee posted an ad last week charging that Democratic Rep. John Barrow was "leaving Georgia seniors behind" by supporting "a plan that would raise the retirement age to 69 while cutting Social Security benefits." And in Florida, Rep. Joe Garcia (D) has been accused of "failing seniors" in a new ad put up by the National Republican Congressional Campaign.
The Crossroads ads and others reek of hypocrisy, of course, since Rove and other Republicans previously criticized Obama for failing to support the Bowles-Simpson proposal, The Washington Post noted. "Likewise, the NRCC ads attacking Garcia and Rep. John Barrow for endorsing Social Security cuts come despite many Republicans pushing for just that," Politico reported.
Republican leaders have long advocated changes in entitlement programs that their party is now criticizing some Democrats for backing.
Indeed, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has long championed cuts in entitlement programs and the social safety net for the poor as a means of controlling the deficit. The latest House Republican budget in fact declares, “It is critical that bipartisan action be taken to address the looming insolvency of Social Security."
In light of all of this last-minute campaign fallout, Maya MacGuineas, president of the bi-partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, told The Post that the prospects for a grand bargain along the lines of Bowles-Simpson are "in all likelihood dead" for the remainder of the Obama administration, while she remains hopeful there will still be a chance for "mini-bargains."
For now, even a mini-bargain that touches Social Security and other entitlement programs appears well out of reach.
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